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Not Outrageous, So No Outrage

“I think you are going to see outrage by the public,” the Republican leader of the state Senate said Monday after the state Supreme Court ruled that public employees in California have the right to strike. One can hope that this will not be the case. It is not an outrageous decision, nor does it presage outrageous behavior on the part of the state’s 1.4 million government workers.

Certainly legislative leaders need not react with outrage at a court decision that recognizes the reality of employee-management relations in the 1980s, two decades after the state first granted its workers the right to join unions and negotiate salary levels and working conditions. In a sense the Legislature invited this court determination by granting the right of collective bargaining and then ducking the issue of whether employees could take the next logical step and strike.

There have always been two big fears about public-employee strikes. One is a walkout by critical employees like firemen and policemen that would lead to chaos. The second is that increasing demands would lead government to the brink of bankruptcy. In fact, neither has happened under collective bargaining, nor is it likely to under the court’s ruling.

The court stipulated that strikes are illegal if they create “a substantial and imminent threat to the health or safety of the public.” That part of the ruling maintains what has been widely understood to be the necessary status quo. On the second point, the clout of public-employee unions at the bargaining table is likely to be strengthened. But the budgeting process and the public mood will continue to constrain Civil Service wages just as private wage levels are constrained by the corporation’s financial statement and the need to pay dividends. In either case the public gets pretty much the level of service that it pays for.

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In fact, during tight budget times the first and easiest cut is often in public employment levels, salaries and benefits. That may not be the best management practice in the long run, but the Civil Service has always been a handy target for governmental belt-tightening.

It should not be assumed that the ruling will lead to more strikes. If public management realizes that a strike is a legitimate threat, it may be encouraged to negotiate the sort of contract that reduces the necessity of a strike.

For their part, the employees may find that it is to their own advantage to use their new power with restraint. Otherwise an outraged public may indeed strike back.


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